Regional cooperation vital to curtail contagion coronavirus

Dr. Fawad Muhammad

As the Lunar New Year holidays are at the doorstep in China, where more than 400 million people are expected to travel domestically and internationally. A newly contagion novel coronavirus fear heighten and has sickened more than 831 people across China including 95 in critical situation, and the fatalities rose to 25 deaths. Early this January, the Chinese Government informed WHO of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. To identify the causative agent of the infection the public health official remains focused on continued contact tracing, conducting environmental assessments at the wholesale seafood market, and investigations to identify the pathogen causing the outbreak.

Early this week, the epidemiological and molecular genotyping confirmed that a novel coronavirus (n-CoV) closely similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) behind the deadly infection outbreak. Initially, it was felt that a spillover took place and infection was disseminated into the local pool; however, recent investigations confirm the human-to-human transmission in the patient who was diagnosed with n-CoV in the southern part of China, Guangdong Province, having no history of traveling to Wuhan. The causes have not been restricted to the local pool and recent updates announce that the virus has spread to the metropolitan cities of China including Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and many other cities. Moreover, the virus outbreak was not bound domestically and 5 confirmed cases of the deadly infection were confirmed in passengers traveling to Japan 1 case, South Korea 1 case, USA 1 case, Thailand 2 cases and more countries are adding to the list.

In an effort to safeguard people’s lives, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered all-out action to curb the spread of the virus. Sensing the severity the situation, WHO announced yesterday that it was convening an emergency meeting on the virus, which is a coronavirus, a species common among animals that occasionally leaps to humans. Today in China, the government has systematically implemented long-term plans including a complete country-wide architecture for biosafety management and lockdown Wuhan city, under level one quarantine measure. It includes the establishment of a series of improved biosafety regulations, standards and of a large number of high-level biosafety laboratories.

Past outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, Ebola virus in West Africa in 2013, ZIKA virus in 2016, and in 2018 the Nipah Virus in India, highlight the urgent need to change the current global status quo. Back in 2003, SARS caused much human suffering and their devastating effects have remained for the last two decades. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS-CoV during the 2003 outbreak, among these 774 died. Similarly, another outbreak of the closely related virus MERS-CoV of the same virus family was also recognized in Saudi Arabia back in 2012, and around 2,067 positive cases were reported.

In today’s era, rapid globalization of trade, travel, climate change, protectionism and geopolitical populism amplify the spread of infectious diseases faster than ever before. Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases cause much human suffering and illustrate that once an infectious disease takes hold locally, the epicenter and the rest of the world is put at risk. The borderless concept of the disease spread the view that fundamentally, health problems are similar in both developing countries and high-income nations.

In South Asia, 5 countries including Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan share total 5682-kilometer (km) vast border with China. Since 2013, under the belt and road initiatives (BRI), South Asian countries are under the cooperation fold and different energy, infrastructure and industrial projects are underway.

However, the region is seriously vulnerable to infectious diseases and biosafety and biosecurity measures are much weaker in region. Pakistan, shares a 521 km with China and both countries have a robust flow of people. A major stakeholder of belt and road initiatives (BRI), the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is in its second phase. Both countries have a robust flow of people and approximately 60,000 Chinese labors are engaged with different projects here in Pakistan. Despite of all weather friendship and strong bilateral cooperation, the early disease warning system, readiness and preparedness response is not in its active phase between the two countries and also with other South Asian countries. Pakistan must be vigilant before any transmission or spillover takes place, otherwise heavy lost of lives may hit the region. Secondly, the virus is newly emerged; limited clinical, molecular and epidemiological studies available to better guide the clinician regarding virus infectivity and disease severity. Scaling up the capabilities of developing countries to enable them in dealing with the burden of infectious diseases requires financial aid and active technical assistance. All countries should encourage preparedness and improve surveillance systems to predict, identify, and respond to the next public health crisis. Therefore, global and regional cooperation is required to effectively intervene in the dissemination of this life-threatening disease.